Story: Museums

Page 3. Ethnology, research and building projects, 1900 to 1945

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Museums in the new century

After the initial flurry of setting up museums, there were few significant new developments until after 1900, though exhibitions still proved popular. In the early 20th century museums had something of an image problem and attendances declined. Some institutions explored novel styles of display to compete with modern attractions such as cinema. Changes to museum subjects and displays helped revive public interest from the 1920s onwards.

Museums for enlightenment

In 1934 Governor-General Lord Bledisloe expounded on museums’ role in education, when laying the foundation stone for the new National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum. He said that the new institutions should become ‘not a storehouse of fusty and ill-assorted curios and a farrago of artistic mediocrity, but a source of intellectual and aesthetic enlightenment which will vitalise every sphere of educational effort.’1

Building and studying Māori collections

In terms of collections, a new interest developed in subjects such as ethnology, including Māori material culture. Augustus Hamilton, James Hector’s successor as director of the Colonial (later the Dominion) Museum, concentrated on enlarging and displaying the Māori collection. Pacific and ‘foreign’ ethnological collections were also built up, though largely by donation rather than active collecting.

In 1910 Hamilton appointed ethnologist Elsdon Best to research and write on Māori subjects. Thomas Heberley, Te Āti Awa carver and cultural expert, became, in 1924, the first Māori to hold a fulltime position at the museum.

In 1918 Otago Museum appointed ethnologist H. D. Skinner as assistant curator. Skinner employed David Teviotdale and Leslie Lockerbie as archaeologists. Canterbury Museum appointed Roger Duff in 1938, who carried out important archaeological work at Pyramid Valley (North Canterbury) and Wairau Bar. Gilbert Archey, Auckland Museum director from 1924, was a zoologist, but developed a strong interest in Māori art.

Research and education

During the 1920s and 1930s Auckland Museum employed a range of biological researchers including ornithologist Robert Falla, conchologist (shell expert) A. W. B. Powell and botanist Lucy Cranwell. The museum organised a major scientific expedition to Three Kings Islands in 1934 for biological and geological research.

In the 1910s and 1920s Amy Castle was employed as entomologist at the Dominion Museum, researching and building up the insect collection. The museum also appointed Thomas Lindsay Buick as historical researcher in 1934. A notable feature of this period was the provision of education staff and facilities, funded initially by the Carnegie Foundation of the United States.

The interwar museum building boom

In the 1920s and 1930s a wave of new museums and building extensions occurred, responding to local pressures and international trends. The Auckland War Memorial Museum reopened in 1929, in a grand building in the Auckland Domain, as a monument to the First World War dead. Then in 1936 the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum opened in Wellington, joining the National War Memorial and carillon on Mt Cook. This temple of culture and mausoleum of national sacrifice was referred to as ‘Wellington’s Acropolis’. Outside the main centres, several regional galleries and museums were built or extended: in Dunedin and Whanganui in the 1920s, and in Christchurch and Napier in the 1930s.

Dioramas to documentaries

While working at the Colonial Museum in 1905, James McDonald built a model that remained on display for 60 years. At the Dominion Museum, from 1912, he built and painted the models for dioramas and illustrated museum publications. McDonald also became the museum photographer and managed the photograph collection. But, most significantly, he filmed Māori in remote areas around Gisborne, the East Coast and Whanganui from 1919 to 1923.

Changes to displays

Moving to larger premises allowed changes in displays, avoiding the clutter of the Victorian era. The bigger museums now stored a large quantity of their collections and displayed a smaller proportion of artefacts in more spacious settings. Different subjects, such as ethnology, geology or zoology, had their own exhibition halls. The Dominion Museum and the Auckland War Memorial Museum had Māori halls with waka (canoes), wharenui (meeting houses) and pātaka (storehouses) on display. Dioramas (three-dimensional models), first used in the 19th century, became a common feature of museums in this period.

Footnotes:
  1. The proper function and scope of a national art gallery and Museum: address of his excellency Lord Bledisloe, Governor-General of New Zealand. Auckland: Wilson & Horton, 1934, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Conal McCarthy, 'Museums - Ethnology, research and building projects, 1900 to 1945', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/museums/page-3 (accessed 18 October 2019)

Story by Conal McCarthy, published 22 Oct 2014